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September 6, 2016


Are you a student? New to Boston? Want to fight for social justice, but not sure where to plug in? Well, this will hardly be a comprehensive list, but here are some local activist organizations and campaigns that are worthy of your consideration. I’m only including groups that I’ve written about (and that I agree with in broad strokes) for the sake of brevity. But, rest assured, there are activist organizations for people of every political disposition hereabouts.

A few tips are in order for people new to grassroots political activism. Seek organizations that are open and welcoming, have a democratic internal process, play well with other groups, and treat students as equals regardless of age or experience. Avoid organizations that look at students as free labor, seem focused on hitting people up for money, don’t work with other groups, and have a very undemocratic internal process run by a small ruling clique. Also avoid outright cults masquerading as political activist groups. They exist. You’ll know you’ve run into one when you meet people whose entire lives seem to be directly controlled by their organization and who will not stop trying to recruit you even after you say “no.” In general, listen to your gut instinct when checking out an activist organization, and you’ll be fine.

Here’s the list.

Black Lives Matter

One of the most important and vibrant American political movements today. Leading the biggest fight against entrenched structural racism in decades. In the wake of an ongoing series of police shootings of Black people around the country. Different local nodes of the activist network have varying membership requirements. But if you can’t be a core member, BLM periodically calls for allies to join them in the streets. That will be your cue to step up. Just remember to check your privilege. Chapters in Boston and Cambridge.

350 Mass for a Better Future

If you’re down to stop global warming, this group has got you covered. It’s organized on the state, national, and international levels and doesn’t shy away from civil disobedience or legislative action. Its current big campaign is the Clean Money for Climate Pledge, asking “candidates running for state, federal and municipal office in Massachusetts [to] commit not to accept campaign contributions from executives, in-house lobbyists and others employed by the top ten climate-disrupting corporations.” Including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

Save Our Public Schools

Do you believe education is a right—not a privilege—in a democracy? Do you think that charter schools are a total scam designed to siphon public money into a variety of private pockets, and destroy public schools in the process? Well there’s an active fight against Question 2, an upcoming state ballot measure backed by very well-funded supporters determined to expand the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth. It’s called Save Our Public Schools (a.k.a. the “No on 2” campaign) and it’s spearheaded, as ever, by teachers unions—in this case, the Mass Teachers Association.

Make GE Pay

Since the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced their plans to dump at least $270 million on General Electric—one of the largest and nastiest multinational corporations in the world—in exchange for moving its world headquarters to the Hub, there’s been been a good deal of discontent brewing in communities around the state. Largely in opposition to local and state government handing huge wads of public cash to a tremendously wealthy company with plenty of skeletons in local closets—in a period of savage budget cuts to critical social programs. The Make GE Pay coalition formed last spring to try to stop the deal, and is looking to get in gear this fall after some early public actions.

encuentro 5

Can’t decide which campaign excites you the most? Why choose? This movement building space right off the Park Street T stop has a mission to get social justice activists “better networked, better resourced, and better organized.” Home to several important nonprofits, and a regular meeting place for dozens of activist groups, if you can’t find a campaign that interests you here then you may wish to reconsider your aspiration to be politically active.

That’s enough to get you started. Have fun. Fight the power. And be careful out there.

Full Disclosure: 350 Mass is a member of my organization’s Community Advisory Board, and encuentro 5 was launched by colleagues at my former nonprofit, Mass Global Action.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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August, 29, 2016


Introductory Note by Jason Pramas, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism: For the growing number of American students who come from “non-traditional” (read “Black, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, immigrant, and/or poor”) backgrounds, getting into a university — let alone graduating— remains extremely difficult. All too many colleges — especially elite Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools — simply were not designed to deal with students who weren’t white, wealthy, and WASP. They were designed to exclude them. Things have changed over the past half century after much struggle by university students, faculty, and staff of good conscience (together with off-campus allies) across the country, but not nearly enough in some important respects. So it was disappointing to read last week’sBoston Globe editorial, “Smith College activists cry wolf over bigotry.” In which the immensely privileged editorial board of a major newspaper told a group of students of color at the Smith College School for Social Work — a co-ed graduate program — that they were out of line for protesting racism at their school. Specifically, letters to the Smith administration written by one of their department chairs and an anonymous group of their adjunct faculty. Both stating that many social work students of color should never have been admitted to the college. Globe reporter Laura Krantz took a more balanced look at the Smith situation earlier this week, but that doesn’t excuse the newspaper’s editors for choosing to call the Smith students out for special disfavor without giving them a chance to respond in print. By way of corrective, I thought it was important to reach out to the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters and let them speak for themselves. They graciously agreed to write a response to the Globe editorial, and I now publish it here in the public interest. Read on … 

Several Smith College social work students drafted this statement addressing recent organizing surrounding issues of race and racism at the Smith College School for Social Work. Our voices are a small part of a larger organizing collective committed to this work.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe suggests that student activism at Smith College’s School for Social Work is “overwrought,” and advises us as organizers that “not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade.” TheGlobe’s editorial writers have not been sitting in classes or common spaces on campus, nor have they been talking to professors or students directly. As students in these spaces, we feel that we must provide context that challenges the Globe’s narrative: our actions have encouraged open dialogue to better our school, community, and the larger profession of social work.

Thus, we agree with the authors of the Globe editorial, who write: “disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.” It is imperative to bring these issues out from behind closed doors, where professors and administrators are discussing their concerns about students without our input. Our actions this summer follow the actions of many before us, extending far beyond the walls of Smith. They are intended to start public conversations, not shut them down. We encourage our administrators and professors to engage authentically with us, not in private, anonymous forums without giving us an opportunity to respond. Students have been left out of these conversations for decades, and the two letters released were written directly in response to student voices finally being a part of the conversation. This was a result of organizing efforts by students. Our hope has always been to have the opportunity to respond and engage in collective dialogue to improve Smith College.

Further, the Globe editorial mischaracterizes Smith students as individuals who don’t know what real oppression looks like. We do in fact understand the reading of “colonialism and racial oppression” in the two leaked letters. When faculty and administrators decry students “lacking academic qualifications,” call our “competence” into question, and criticize a “tainted” admissions process, we understand that this rhetoric has a history. In academia, as Roderick A. Ferguson writes in his book “The Reorder of Things,” words like “ability,” “competence,” and “efficiency” are used as seemingly “neutral” words that are actually used to surveil, exclude, and measure students of color. As one organizer points out, “these notions are only ever deployed in an attempt to ‘neutrally’ or ‘colorblindly’ exclude members of marginalized communities from gaining access to sites of power.

However, it is critical to understand that as student protesters, we are addressing more than these singular letters. Like students from other institutions of higher learning across the country, we are seeking structural changes in faculty and student diversity, curriculum variety, and an academic review process that has disproportionately harmed students of color at Smith’s School for Social Work. As recently as 1986, there were only 3 students of color in the school’s student body of nearly 300. Even today, the school’s widely-publicized anti-racism commitment fails to bring diversity to its teaching staff, its admissions recruitment and retention, and its assigned readings. In the summer of 2015, students at Smith presented a list of demands similar to the demands presented by students at 51 other institutions across the country, demanding that the school live up to its anti-racism commitment. This work carried over into the summer of 2016, and student organizing on campus has had a history of success in bringing about tangible change. In this work, we are not here to shut down speech or dialogue. We are not here to speak over white members of our community. Faculty, students, and administrators can be able to engage in collective conversation around the ways Smith lives up to its commitment.

We are concerned that the Globe has chosen to characterize us as part of the maligned “college crybully” generation. If aligning ourselves with the standards of social work articulated by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics makes us “crybullies,” then so be it. We seek to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.” We “challenge social injustice.” As students who want to carry our critical thinking skills with us into practice now and in our careers, can we be blamed for our criticisms of Smith’s culture? As Roxane Gay writes in The New Republic, “Whether we agree with these student protesters or not, we should be listening: They are articulating a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.”

As members of the Smith community, we are in pain watching our fellow community-members disproportionately take on the burden of educating peers and professors about their own internalized racist beliefs. We are then saddled with a burden of proof when we engage with professors like the “concerned adjuncts” and Dennis Miehls: individuals who are eager to cast doubt on students of color and our experiences here. And yet, many are not only hesitant to engage in direct conversation with us about our concerns, but consistently invalidate them.

In the words of the “concerned community members” who leaked the letters, “if we are truly to be a leading school for social work with an anti-racism mission, then our faculty must be leading our field to be more inclusive and ever-committed to the pursuit of social justice.” These protests were not simply about the letters; the letters were symptomatic of a culture of latent racist bias at Smith, where students of color are constantly pushed to prove that we belong here, too. We can no longer idly stand by while Smith fails to give us the education we need to be successful social workers.

Readers who would like to communicate with the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters can email them at